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Casting a 'Spell'

the Boneshakers
Theo Fridlizius

Was, Is Now: Sweet Pea Atkinson (left) and Randy Jacobs of Was (Not Was) now front their own band, the Boneshakers, which plays Saturday at JJ's Blues.

With 'Book of Spells,' the Boneshakers shakes free of Was (Not Was)

By Nicky Baxter

THE BONESHAKERS are not a blues band, nor are they an R&B outfit. Don't expect 12-bar traditionalism or Chicago shuffles when they perform. Instead, they have forged a new blend of funk-rock soul music.

Actually, the notion of mating rock with soul and funk is not novel, but usually one or the other winds up on the killing floor, resulting in more of a mismatch than a true merger. Guitarist, songwriter and producer Randy Jacobs and vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson, formerly of Was (Not Was), have located the middle ground without compromising either idiom's uniqueness. Atkinson's alternately tender and gruff vocals are the soul yin to Jacobs' rock yang. Bassist Trent Stroh, drummer Denny Weston and keyboard player Tio Banks complete the current lineup.

Book of Spells (Pointblank), the band's auspicious debut album, shifts from '60s-style soul to rock to gritty funk and back again without missing a beat. The agenda is set with a supercharged revision of James Brown's "Cold Sweat." Jacobs pulls a Stevie Ray Vaughan on his guitar, wringing chunks of snarling wah-wah-pedal rhythm and black-cat-moan fills from his instrument. On the fadeout, he bring the music back to Vaughan's own source, Jimi Hendrix. Behind him, the rhythm players' groove is punctuated by heated blasts of horn work. Atkinson supplies some primal vocals.

The moderately paced "Break Down the Walls" showcases more stinging wah-wah-pedal riffs, which play off the tune's hiccupy pulse while commenting on Atkinson's gospel-doused vocal. The song succeeds despite its slightly insipid "come on people, let's get together" lyric.

THAT Jacobs and Atkinson deliver Book of Spells with such aplomb is no surprise considering their résumés. Between them, they have performed with a wide range of rock, pop, hip-hop and soul musicians, including Iggy Pop, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Neil Diamond and Seal.

But it was their tenure with Was (Not Was) that brought the two artists international acclaim. More an occasional project than a band, the ever-shifting roster nevertheless produced a couple of cult classics in "(Return to the Valley of) Out Come the Freaks" and "Walk Like a Dinosaur." What's Up, Dog? (1988) was a commercial and artistic success, eventually named to Rolling Stone's "Top 100 Albums of the 1980s" list.

Affable and articulate, Jacobs readily admits he "learned a lot about trying new things" from Don and David Was. Talking to the Detroit native is quite a learning experience as well. Jacobs, who migrated to Southern California six years ago, is a walking pop encyclopedia. At the age of 14, he was already working with the likes of Sylvia Moore, co-writer, with Stevie Wonder, of the chart-topping "My Cherie Amour."

"When Motown left," Jacobs recalls, "Detroit was going through a withdrawal; everybody was trying to find the right formula to fill that gap. So, it wasn't hard to get gigs." Especially if you were a precocious youngster. "I learned from everybody," Jacobs says. "I remember when Funkadelic came through in '71; Westbound [then P-Funk's recording label] was right there in Detroit. I picked up on the way they combined R&B and rock."

He also was listening to guitarist Curtis Mayfield's delicately romantic melody making. Like Mayfield, Jacobs plays without a pick, preferring the sound of flesh against strings instead. The guitarist was also profoundly influenced by Iggy Pop, with whom he would later work. "What struck me about him is how he becomes Iggy Pop the moment he walks onstage. He has incredible presence. When I first saw him perform, I thought, 'Wow! This guy's extreme.' "

Though he and Atkinson worked well together in Was (Not Was), the notion of starting a band didn't immediately occur to them. In fact, it was Don Was who first broached the idea. It seemed a logical move. "We both love the Dells," Jacobs says, "and no one's got a voice like Sweet Pea. He brings to the table an incredible voice, something I definitely don't have."

During his tenure with Was (Not Was), Jacobs says his guitar playing suffered because he was encouraged to do the wild thing with his instrument, rolling across the stage like a '90s version of T-Bone Walker. With his own group, he is content to let the music do the talking. "With a guy like Sweet Pea singing, great background vocals and a great band, there's no need for all that stuff. The music is the show."

The Boneshakers plays Saturday (Aug. 23) at 9pm at JJ's Blues, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara. Tickets are $7. (408/243-6441)

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From the August 21-27, 1997 issue of Metro.

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